UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen leads our list of 15 freshmen who are set to make an immediate impact this fall.
It’s natural for fans to expect their favorite team’s top recruits to produce right away. They dominate high school games, perform well at various camps and receive high marks from scouting services.
Sometimes the high expectations are spot-on. Other times those prospects aren’t ready to make the immediate jump against college competition. As training camps progress over the next month, we should get a clearer picture of which newcomers can earn a significant number of snaps in their first seasons. The list of 15 below is composed mostly of players that fall into that category, as well as some who redshirted in 2014 but are now ready to shine.
Byron Cowart, DE, Auburn
The hype surrounding Cowart has already reached an unreasonably high level. That’s not exactly surprising. Rivals.com rated Cowart the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2015, and his decision on National Signing Day to join Auburn—which followed a comical war room video featuring new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and a dramatic saga involving whether or not Cowart had faxed in his letter of intent—was viewed as a coup. Muschamp said last week that Cowart, who is listed at 6’3”, 277 pounds, could line up either at defensive end or the Buck position, a hybrid end-linebacker role. Either way, defenses will need to make sure they account for the Seffner, Fla., native.
Mike Freeze, LB, TCU
One of the biggest questions TCU faces heading into 2015 is whether it can replace the group of senior linebackers—including leading tackler Paul Dawson—that helped it finish last season with the Big 12’s top scoring defense. Freeze looks likely to start after enrolling early and participating in spring workouts. Ranked 59th among outside linebackers in the class of 2015, according to Rivals.com, Freeze played safety at Graham (Texas) High but missed his senior season because of a dislocated shoulder. The Horned Frogs listed Freeze No. 1 at middle linebacker on their post-spring depth chart, and he should maintain that spot going into TCU’s opener at Minnesota unless his performance dips during fall camp. He could become the latest example of why it's unwise to discount three-star prospects from Texas.
Will Grier, QB, Florida
Florida has not boasted one of the top passing attacks in the SEC since Tim Tebow was on campus. The Gators have since trotted out an assembly line of signal callers with impressive credentials coming out of high school who, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t cut it at the college level. Grier is the next man up. Though new coach Jim McElwain hasn’t officially declared a starter, the Davidson, N.C., native appears to have a clear lead on sophomore Treon Harris. A former four-star recruit, Grier redshirted last season after Harris beat him out for the backup job behind Jeff Driskel, who transferred to Louisiana Tech in January. Although the arrival of head coach Jim McElwain should help revive the Gators’ offense, whoever wins the QB job will have to deal with a rebuilding offensive line and a lack of proven receiver options other than junior Demarcus Robinson.
Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
It’s a testament to Alabama’s depth that one of the top defensive back prospects in the country didn’t see the field as a true freshman. Humphrey redshirted after arriving in Tuscaloosa last year alongside Tony Brown as part of a top-flight cornerback tandem from the same recruiting class (Rivals.com ranked Humphrey and Brown No. 2 and No. 4, respectively, among cornerbacks in the class of 2014). Although unable to make an immediate impact with the Crimson Tide on the gridiron, Humphrey helped the track team set a new record in the 4x400 relay in February. He made strides during spring workouts and impressed during the A-Day game. Alabama returns players with more experience in the secondary, including second-team All-SEC selection Cyrus Jones, but Alabama could quickly turn to options like Humphrey after finishing seventh in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season.
Martez Ivey, OT, Florida
At the end of spring practice, Florida’s offensive line was beset by so many injuries that it included only six players on scholarship. T.J. McCoy, a freshman transfer from N.C. State who will be eligible immediately, will add depth to the unit. But the newcomer expected to make the biggest impact up front is Ivey. The No. 1 offensive lineman in the class of 2015 picked the Gators over Auburn on National Signing Day, giving McElwain a tentpole recruit for a class that had lulled amid uncertainty over the future of former coach Will Muschamp. Ivey is projected to start right away at tackle. He’ll be tasked with protecting Grier (or Harris) and clearing space for Florida’s running backs as McElwain attempts to implement a new offense.
Derwin James, S, Florida State
Perhaps no true freshman has generated as much buzz since arriving on campus as James. He has been filmed darting past teammates in a 40-yard dash, pumping out a rep of 405 pounds on the bench press, clearing a man standing upright with a two-footed leap, making one-handed catches while lying prone on artificial turf and throwing down a reverse tomahawk dunk. Of course, Seminoles fans were expecting a lot out of James before his wondrous athletic feats went viral. No safety has ever been given a higher rating (No. 5 in the class of 2015) from Rivals.com than the 6’3”, 212-pounder. James worked frequently with the second team during spring workouts, but Florida State won’t be able to keep him off of the field.
Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
How important was Jefferson to the Longhorns’ 2015 recruiting class? Coach Charlie Strong likened the addition to Florida’s signing of Tim Tebow in ’06. Jefferson, whom Rivals.com rated the top outside linebacker in the country, enrolled early and turned heads during spring workouts. He is a modern defensive coordinator’s dream: a player who possesses both the speed to track down receivers in space and the strength to deliver punishing blows. According to The Dallas Morning News, Jefferson has put on almost 30 pounds of muscle since joining the Longhorns. Texas will need him to be ready right away, as it opens the season on Sept. 5 at Notre Dame, SI’s No. 4 team in the country.
Canton Kaumatule, DL, Oregon
The most important player the Ducks need to replace from last season’s College Football Playoff runners-up is Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. But Oregon also needs to find someone to fill in for defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who went 17th overall in the NFL draft. Kaumatule is arguably the best candidate. The Punahou (Hawaii) High standout committed to Oregon in November, and his recruiting stock soared after a strong showing at the Under Armour All-American Bowl practices. (This Vine capturing a slick spin move he pulled off is mesmerizing.) Kaumatule, the No. 5 strongside defensive end in the class of 2015, according to Rivals.com, will boost a D-Line that brings back senior DeForest Buckner, a projected first-round pick.
Iman Marshall, CB, USC
Marshall revealed his decision to attend USC through a music video on National Signing Day and became the most important piece of a recruiting class that ranked first in the country, according to Rivals.com. Although he exited spring workouts staring up at senior Kevon Seymour on the depth chart, that could change during fall camp or early in the season. Regardless of whether or when he starts, the nation’s top incoming cornerback prospect will elevate a secondary that rated as one of the Pac-12’s best last year. Marshall also represents one half of a very promising future at cornerback for the Trojans. Do-everything stud Adoree’ Jackson is back as a sophomore after receiving the league’s Defensive Freshman of the Year honor in 2014.
Kahlil McKenzie, DT, Tennessee
Want a snapshot of how opposing offensive linemen feel about McKenzie? At the U.S. Army All-American Bowl practices in December, four-star offensive guard and Oregon signee Zach Okun was so excited about stopping McKenzie on one repetition that he described it as “the moment of my life.” McKenzie, the No. 1 defensive tackle in the class of 2015, according to Rivals.com, may not get that type of respect from SEC upperclassmen right away, but he’ll be a disruptive presence on the interior who can plug running holes. We know McKenzie’s upper body is strong, and bloggers are already penning posts to highlight the width of his legs. If he were eligible, McKenzie’s father, Oakland Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie, might consider drafting him next year.
Jacques Patrick, RB, Florida State
Florida State took two team photos at its media day Sunday: one with Dalvin Cook and one without him. It was the latest indication of the uncertainty surrounding the status of the sophomore tailback charged with misdemeanor battery. But thanks in part to Patrick, Florida State is prepared to sustain a strong running game even if Cook is unavailable. After being named the Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Timber Creek (Fla.) High and earning five-star marks from recruiting services, Patrick recorded 100 all-purpose yards in the Seminoles’ Garnet-and-Gold spring game. In another spring workout, he plowed a defender to the ground and kept running. Patrick should split carries with junior Mario Pender and sophomore Johnathan Vickers.
Jabrill Peppers, S, Michigan
Peppers was such a highly regarded recruit that he’s stoking nearly as much optimism about his redshirt freshman season as he did for his true freshman debut. After appearing in only three games, suffering a leg injury and redshirting last year, Peppers is switching positions—from cornerback to safety—but has strong cover skills and is versatile enough to function as a sort of rover in the back end of Michigan’s defense. The East Orange, N.J., native also maintains that he’s comfortable playing on the other side of the ball and could help out on special teams. However Michigan uses him, expect Peppers’ second college campaign to go more smoothly than his first one. He seemed pretty excited about his future this spring.
Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama
It’s time for Alabama to adjust to LWTBRICF. That unnecessarily long, totally made-up acronym stands for Life Without The Best Receiver In College Football. The Crimson Tide have to replace not only Amari Cooper, but also their two other top receivers from last season, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones. Enter Ridley, the No. 1 wideout in the class of 2015, according to Rivals.com. The Monarch (Fla.) High product played in only three games his senior season because of his age and did not enroll early to partake in spring workouts. But he should get up to speed in time to carve out a role in Alabama’s receiving corps. Ridley has already impressed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who said he has the “elite talent” of a Biletnikoff winner. The more important question involves who will be throwing him the ball.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Bruins coach Jim Mora has yet to say who will be running the first-team offense in the season opener against Virginia, but it would be a big surprise if it’s not Rosen. As a senior at St. John Bosco (Calif.) High, Rosen passed for 3,186 yards with 29 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He showed during spring practice why he was regarded so favorably as a recruit and should only become more comfortable running the offense as he accrues more repetitions during preseason camp. Rosen is not as mobile as his predecessor, Brett Hundley, but his arm strength, accuracy and poise should ensure UCLA’s offense doesn’t dip too much (if at all). The 6’4”, 205-pounder will benefit from a more experienced offensive line as well as the return of junior Paul Perkins, the Pac-12’s leading rusher in 2014.
Trent Thompson, DT, Georgia
There is a formidable group of defensive linemen set to sign National Letters of Intent with the Bulldogs in February, but Georgia fans should ignore that temporarily and focus instead on the star tackle expected to help their team this fall. True freshmen rarely project as major contributors on the interior of the defensive line—much less in a conference renowned for churning out NFL-caliber players from that position group. Thompson is an outlier. The 6’4”, 307-pounder was rated the No. 2 defensive tackle in the class of 2015 after starring at Westover (Ga.) High. His ability to draw double teams and collapse the pocket will only make life more difficult for opposing offensive lines worried about how to block one of the top linebacker corps in the country.